As a priest, I am often called upon to care for people in material need. It could be someone who slept under a bridge or in a culvert last night who needs food, some clean clothes and some travelling money. It could be someone who just got out of the hospital, or jail, or rehab. They could be in need of a place to stay until they can connect with relatives, or something as simple as a pot and hot plate to cook ramen noodles in for their dinner. It could be a suburban dad, whose white collar job doesn't pay enough to maintain the house his family lives in; or it could be a working-poor mom who can manage rent, but can't put food on the table. It could be anything. What I have learned is that there is never anything predictable about people needing help. What remains a constant? That people, time and again, find themselves painted into a corner of life and can't find a way out. They need help.
Sometimes I can give it, as it is needed. We have faithful people connected to the church who can help folks access social services. We have access to lawyers who are willing to offer advice to folks who are facing troubles with the law, eviction or repossession of property. We have a food pantry, and I have a key and a passel of phone numbers of volunteers who can help people get food even in the pantry's off hours. My parish has a thrift store where people with a little money can buy a lot...and where people can get help and shop, even when there isn't any money to be had. When all else fails, I have a little money in a discretionary account. My parish supports it on the first Sunday of each month when the cash in the plate goes to help people in need. It isn't much, but it's there. That fund has helped people with rental assistance, car repairs, travel money to visit a dying relative and more. Help is there. It's too often limited in aspect, but it's there.
The challenge, and it is a real and troubling challenge, is to remember that fixing isn't helping. My experience of being able to truly help someone means that we are both (helper and "helped") willing to enter into a relationship that is mutual and invested in resolving the issues that precipitated the crisis in the first place. It takes time, and a willingness to continue to work past crisis and into a space where growth in spirit and hope can take root. It also requires of those offering aid that they respect that the person needing help does not need someone telling them what they need to do, should have done or how they should feel in the midst of their struggle. That isn't helping, or even fixing. It's shaming.
Even if we fix the problem, the systems that got the person there are still in place. The public utilities will continue to bill and charge finance and penalty fees even after we make them whole. The boss simply isn't willing or able to give more hours, dollars or benefits. The car is old, and a new fuel pump only means that the timing belt will be the next thing to break. At a personal level, substance, personal or interpersonal abuse won't resolve into recovery until there is intervention and the person who is the locus of the behaviors is willing to admit "bottom" and begin to seek sobriety. Fixing, in the end, really just delays the moment of crisis.
Helping is different...and when undertaken with respect for the humanity (and inner divinity) of the other it becomes holy work, indeed.
I recently had cause to explain to someone who was extremely well-intentioned that their desire to help will only be effective when they are willing to let go of trying to fix the person in front of them who is in crisis. His truly noble motivation to provide for the person in need in front of him won't bear good fruit until he is willing to understand where they are coming from, and to where they hope to go, in this life.
To put it into blunter terms....when I was at a low ebb in my own life, when my whole existence was under attack and when all I could see was loss of self, career and vocation, a person came to me with this counsel: "I can't fix things for you. That's not my job. But, what I can do is climb down into the pit you are living in right now....and perhaps the two of us can figure out how to get you up and out." He did just that....and without trying to fix me up he helped me out of the pit I was in, giving me just enough support that I could begin to pull the fragmented pieces of myself back together. I emerged from that encounter, not "fixed" or even repaired...but it did incept a path of healing that continues to this day.
I hope that you, as you read this missive, will come to understand that rendering aid is always better than passing by when someone is in crisis. Just remember that you are there to help, and that means working with and knowing the person you are attempting to aid.
Leave fixing out of the mix. Fixing only works once, and only until something else breaks. Helping is committed to the long term, to relationship, to continued growth in and of community.